Alabama Crimson Tide: Vinnie Sunseri

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
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Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
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The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Perry isn’t doing anything to temper expectations for the Alabama secondary. The senior safety missed all but the first two games last season, and what he saw from the sidelines clearly didn’t suit him. Back from injury, he’s looking for a marked improvement.

“I think we’re going to be a better secondary this year,” Perry told reporters late last week. “The world should be ready to see more of the old UA-style secondary.”

Last fall's results fell short of the typical Alabama standard. Though the numbers were far from horrific in the national rankings -- seventh in rushing yards per game, 11th in passing yards per game, fourth in touchdowns allowed -- the secondary was nonetheless vulnerable. Perry and fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri suffered season-ending injuries, starting cornerback Deion Belue wasn’t always 100 percent, and the cornerback spot opposite him was never truly settled as John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all unsuccessfully tried to lock down the position.

[+] EnlargeNick Perry
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsDespite their youth and inexperience, Nick Perry believes Alabama's secondary is ready for a return to glory.
Alabama’s defense surrendered its highest Raw QBR score (38.1) since 2007 -- by comparison, that number averaged out to 22.5 from 2009-12. The Tide defense was ranked 60th nationally in the percentage of pass completions gaining 10 yards or more (46.2).

Still, Perry is confident this season will be different, even though that flies in the face of some noticeable obstacles. For one, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix left early for the NFL. Along with Belue and Sunseri, three-fourths of last season’s secondary is gone. For another, Jackson tore his ACL on Saturday and will be out for several months, removing a promising talent from the equation. Barring an Adrian Peterson-like comeback, it’s hard to envision the sophomore playing this season.

Those moves ultimately leave more questions than answers for Alabama's personnel. But it’s not the personnel that has Perry hopeful. It’s the coaching.

“Having Kirby [Smart] and [Nick] Saban in the same room coaching the same position is a dream come true for any defensive back,” he said.

Perry called the two “geniuses at their position.” He said that Smart is already “putting his new spin on things.”

“It’s tremendous,” said fellow safety Landon Collins. “[Smart] just coaches us at a different level, trying to get us to understand it from his point of view because he played the position, and he knows what’s going on. It’s his defense. So basically it’s a tremendous thing for us safeties because he sits down and goes step-by-step on what we need to do and what will make us a better player.”

Saban has long worked with cornerbacks during practice, but this spring, Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, moved from coaching linebackers to safeties in order to clear the way for Kevin Steele’s return.

“I’ve always liked it when Kirby coaches the secondary,” Saban explained. “I think it's really hard for one guy to coach the secondary right now. I’m really sort of his [graduate assistant]. He's kind of working with the safeties and the whole group and then when we break down, I kind of try to work with the corners a little bit.

“I thought last year, we didn't play with enough consistency back there. We had a lot of different rotating parts, different starters, different corners starting. We've got to come up with some guys that can develop some consistency in performance.”

As with most springs, the most talked-about players are the true freshmen. Five-star cornerback Tony Brown and four-star safety Laurence 'Hootie' Jones have been on campus since January, participating in the offseason conditioning program and spring practice. To Perry’s eye, they haven’t disappointed.

“Those guys have a bright future,” he said. “They’re picking up the defense pretty good, faster than I’ve seen any freshman pick it up. They came in early, and they’re ready to work.”

Perry was kind enough to break down each players’ strengths.

“Tony is a great competitor. He’s fast. He’s everything you want in a corner,” he said. “Hootie is your prototypical safety, you know. He’s big. He has long arms. He has speed.

“Expect those guys to make a couple of plays this year.”

In order to return to the Alabama secondary of old, they’ll need to.

Perry is one of the few familiar faces still around. It’s up to this season’s crop of players to re-establish the standard.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “It’s not like we don’t have anybody at the position,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told a group of reporters prior to the start of spring practice earlier this month, running down the list of questions he had for his team before arriving at the safety position.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is gone at free safety. Vinnie Sunseri is gone at strong safety. Mark Barron has been around the practice facility training lately, but his eligibility ran out long ago, not to mention the pay is decent in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMIAlabama will need Landon Collins to solidify his safety role and lead the Tide's secondary.
So while everyone is craving news on the quarterback competition and the progress of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Saban, who happens to coach the defensive backs, is looking at the safeties where he must replace his two most veteran starters.

“We lost two safeties, but we've got Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins,” he said. “Nick Perry's coming back. Geno (Smith) spent a year at safety so he's probably going to continue to progress.”

Indeed, there are a few reasons for Saban to feel good about the position, maybe none more so than Colllins, who came on strong last season after playing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012. The former five-star prospect filled in for Clinton-Dix when he was suspended and then changed roles when Sunseri was lost for the season to injury.

He didn’t start the first four games of the season, but Collins was in the lineup for the final nine contests, showing the playmaking ability that made him such a coveted recruit out of Louisiana. He finished second on the team in tackles (70), tied for first in interceptions (2) and fumble recoveries (2) and led everyone with eight passes defended. He was named second team All-SEC by the Associated Press.

Saban is expecting even more in 2014. From his seat as head coach, he has seen the key to Collins’ improvement: when the games slow down in his head he can play fast, and when he plays fast there’s no stopping him.

“All players have things that they can work on to improve, and Landon's certainly a guy that is a great competitor and really works hard every day to try to improve and has a really good attitude about it,” Saban said following the third practice of the spring on Wednesday. “I think he's trying to affect other people, be a leader set a good example, encourage others to do things the way they need to do it.

“With Landon, to me, when he understands what he's supposed to do, he really plays fast and is effective. I think the more knowledge and experience that he gets, the more consistently he'll be able to play that way, and that's certainly our goal for him this spring.”

Collins wasn’t expected to be a full-time starter last spring, which was his first on campus. This spring there’s no question he’ll be in the lineup week in and week out.

While most players might not love the grind of spring practice, where the finish line of a game each Saturday doesn’t exist, Collins is embracing it.

“Most of us love spring practice,” he told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “Speaking for the defensive part of it, a lot of our safeties are just trying to figure it out. It was fast-paced going into the season and in fall camp we still didn’t know a lot of the formations and calls and what to do. [In the spring] the coaches get a chance to sit down and take over everything slowly and go over every point and detail to help them act quickly on the field.”

If Collins can play fast, that’s a good sign for Alabama’s defense moving forward. He’ll need help, though. The free safety spot opposite him is up for grabs, along with both starting cornerback positions.

It will be an uphill climb for Saban and his staff to solidify the secondary, but at least they have Collins to start with. From there, at least there are options. As Saban said, it’s not like there’s no one out there to choose from.

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
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Hard-working reporters put in some long hours for the NFL's first day of free agency. It was so packed with news, it was almost like a mini national signing day.

Offseason spotlight: Alabama

February, 28, 2014
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He didn't begin last season as a starter, and injuries ultimately made him flip between positions in the Alabama secondary. But this player will be a fixture for the Crimson Tide in 2014 from Day 1 and will be a key reason whether the defense as a whole will be successful again:

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
AP Photo/Skip MartinLandon Collins will need to be a leader this season for Alabama.
Spotlight: Safety Landon Collins, 6-foot, 215 pounds, junior

2013 summary: It took Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's suspension for Collins to start his first career game at Alabama, and it wasn't even at his natural position. Still, he helped hold up the back end of the defense at free safety until Clinton-Dix's return two games later. And when Vinnie Sunseri was lost for the season against Arkansas, Collins moved comfortably back into his natural spot at strong safety, where he was able to play closer to the line of scrimmage and play with more assertiveness. Despite the moving back and forth, he was a standout on defense with the second-most tackles on the team (70). He also had the most pass breakups (6) and tied for the most interceptions (2).

The skinny: The back end of Alabama's defense had its fair share of troubles in 2013, highlighted by the slew of points and big plays it allowed against Auburn and Oklahoma to end the season. But even before those two deflating losses, Mississippi State's offense had success through the air, as did LSU and Texas A&M. And while the safety position wasn't the most to blame for the Tide's woes on defense -- cornerback was, as Deion Belue battled injuries and the starting spot opposite him was a revolving door -- it will be a focal point in the coming season as both Sunseri and Clinton-Dix have moved on to the NFL. Combined with what could be another shaky set of inexperienced corners in 2014, and the onus falls to a player like Collins to hold up the secondary as a whole. He's never had to be a leader, but this season he'll have to be. Being a talented playmaker won't be enough to make Alabama's defense better. A former five-star recruit, Collins must become an anchor in the mode of Mark Barron, calling out all the plays and making all the necessary checks to get his teammates in the right position to succeed. Luckily for Collins, he'll be attached at the hip with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who will make the transition from coaching inside linebackers to coaching the secondary. And if Smart's tutelage isn't enough, he'll have the head coach, Nick Saban, constantly looking over the secondary as the de facto cornerbacks coach.

Past spotlights:
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has had no trouble recruiting at Alabama. The number of four- and five-star prospects he and his staff have signed since 2007 is nothing short of staggering. Many of them are already enjoying careers in the NFL.

But which class was best? Which group of blue-chippers was the most impressive?

That’s a difficult question, but one we nonetheless set out to answer this week with a countdown of the top three classes at Alabama during Saban’s tenure, not counting the Tide’s most recent recruiting class.

No. 3 on our list in order of impact is the Class of 2011, which finished No. 2 in that season's ESPN class rankings.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Kouandjio
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsCyrus Kouandjio was an anchor on the Alabama offensive line for three seasons.
The stars: Cyrus Kouandjio didn’t say yes to Alabama first. On signing day, he told a national television audience he would sign with Auburn. But a change of heart and a desire to keep it in the family made Kouandjio go with the Tide, giving Saban his first five-star signee at Alabama. Kouandjio had the look of an All-SEC tackle from Day 1 at 6-foot-7 and 325 pounds, and he delivered on that promise, developing into one of the best at his position in the country. Along with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (the No. 2-ranked safety) and linebacker Trey DePriest (the No. 2-ranked outside linebacker), the class had plenty of headliners.

The contributors: It’s hard to imagine calling Vinnie Sunseri a “contributor” considering how he developed. But it’s important to remember that Sunseri, the son of then-assistant Sal Sunseri, wasn’t a highly thought-of prospect. He was a linebacker/safety tweener that ESPN ranked the No. 18 outside linebacker in the country. But the 5-foot-11, 202-pound athlete showed he had a nose for the football, developing into one of the best playmakers in the SEC, starring on special teams as a true freshman before developing into a heavy hitter at safety. Jeoffrey Pagan turned into an NFL-caliber defensive lineman, Ryan Kelly has the look of a solid center, and Christion Jones has turned into a home run threat as a receiver and kick returner.

The letdowns: There were plenty of misses in this class, though. Duron Carter, son of NFL legend Cris Carter, never played a down with the team after transferring to Alabama. Bradley Sylve, the No. 5 wideout in the class, hasn’t made a splash at cornerback, and Brent Calloway is no longer with the program after an arrest a year ago. LaMichael Fanning, who had the build scouts drool over at defensive end, never panned out, transferring to Jacksonville State after this past season. And most recently Dee Hart, a top 10 running back out of high school, left the team after the Sugar Bowl and was arrested by Tuscaloosa police on Feb. 16.

The results: The final tally is still coming in, but the 2011 class appears to be headed in the right direction. Junior college transfers Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial are already playing professional football, and there’s a solid chance both Kouandjio and Clinton-Dix will be selected in the first round of the NFL draft in May. Pagan and Sunseri will follow in the later rounds. If DePriest, Jones and Kelly develop into NFL prospects as fourth-year players in 2014, that would make nine total NFL players from the class, not counting what Xzavier Dickson or D.J. Pettway could do to impress scouts.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban likes to refer to the NFL draft as a “business decision.” Of course he’d love it if his most talented players finished out their eligibility at Alabama, but the promise of long-term financial security is enough to sway even his most selfish ambitions.

He stood on a podium last year and applauded as juniors Dee Milliner and D.J. Fluker declared for the draft. Both were taken in the first round and both received four-year contracts that topped $10 million. Their paychecks were the focus of promotional materials Alabama sent to recruits, one asking “Are You Next?” and the other declaring that “The Process Pays Off.”

[+] EnlargeSaban
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsCoach Nick Saban and Alabama are losing five underclassmen to the 2014 NFL draft.
But there’s a line in the sand for Saban, one he doesn’t advertise on fliers but will admit to publicly: If you’re not a first-round pick, you shouldn’t go pro early.

That’s an awfully hard line to draw in a day and age where patience is neither sexy nor palpable. Recruits want to hear how they’ll start from Day 1. They want to be told how they’ll ascend the depth chart, win a Heisman Trophy and move on to make millions of dollars in the NFL after three short years in school. They don’t want to be told that the process of developing as an athlete -- yes, even Saban’s “Process” that looks more and more like an NFL farm system -- could take longer than that. They don’t want to be told that their four- and five-star rankings won't translate to the pros.

Saban’s hard-line stance toward staying in school has held up well in the past. “We’ve had 13 guys go out early for the draft. Eleven were first round draft picks, one was a second, and one was a third,” he boasted earlier this month. But that statement isn't holding up so well now. A few moments later at the same news conference, he handed off the microphone to four underclassmen who would declare themselves eligible for the draft, only two of whom -- safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio -- were regarded as a first-round prospects. The other two, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan, will be lucky to be taken in the second round.

A fifth underclassmen, safety Vinnie Sunseri, declared for the draft as well. There was no news conference for him, though. Alabama didn't even send out a statement informing the media of his decision. His name just happened to be among the record 98 underclassmen to officially turn pro last week. He'll likely be a late-round pick, but rather than stay and improve his stock, he fled Tuscaloosa. Sources close to the situation cited a rift between him and the coaching staff dating to his sophomore season, but Sunseri hasn't addressed the situation publicly. Rather, he's viewed as just another underclassman hoping to strike it rich, ignoring some recently troubling statistics.

Of the 73 underclassmen to turn pro last year, 21 went undrafted. Of the 52 players who were drafted, 25 were taken in the first two rounds. That's "not a very secure future for you in terms of what your career might bring, the number of years you might play, as well as how much money you might make,” Saban told reporters at the Senior Bowl earlier this week.

More and more, college football is beginning to take on the mentality of college basketball, Saban said. Rather than one-and-done, he cited a three-and-out mindset shared by players and their parents.

"I don’t think the NFL really wants this. I don’t really think the colleges want this," he said. "I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the players. And I don’t know what the solution to the problem really is."

Maybe Saban should look at his own program to find out what answers there might be. Alabama's success sending underclassmen to the draft certainly hasn't helped dissuade others from trying the same path. The type of advertising Saban has targeted at prospects doesn't exactly scream to come get a four-year degree, either. Amari Cooper, who was a Freshman All-American in 2012, had to be corrected by an Alabama staffer when he told reporters this past preseason that he had "two more years here." And it's absurd to think he's the only one eyeing a shortcut to the NFL.

The "epidemic" of underclassmen turning pro, as it has been called, might not have started at Alabama, but it has finally reached its shores.

Saban's attitude of "first round or try again" is showing signs of crumbling. His line in the sand, much to his dismay, is being crossed all too often. He either must dig deeper and retrench, or watch it disappear entirely.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri isn't without good advice to rely upon.

His father, Sal, has been an assistant coach in the NFL and in college for nearly three decades. His brother, Tino, was a quarterback at Pittsburgh before joining the Canadian Football League in 2013. And his coach, Nick Saban, has guided countless players to the pros and understands the draft process as well as anyone could.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel and Vinnie Sunseri
Phil Ellsworth / ESPN ImagesAlabama safety Vinnie Sunseri had two interceptions this season before tearing his ACL against Arkansas.
But that's all a way of illustrating how surprising it is that Sunseri would do the unthinkable and forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft, while still recovering from major knee surgery and without any promise of being drafted.

So what was the hurry?

Sunseri has always been one to fly to the ball with reckless abandon. It's what made him a star on special teams as a freshman and a key contributor in the defensive secondary as a sophomore and junior. Before going down with a torn ACL against Arkansas this season, he had two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. ESPN thought enough to vote him a Midseason All-American.

Maybe that instinct to attack and make something happen is at play here. We all know the draft is a gamble -- go early and you risk it, go late and you risk it just the same -- so Sunseri opting to roll the dice might not be out of character. If he thinks he should strike while the iron is hottest, then best of luck. He's a limited player athletically and sometimes struggles in coverage, but he's as hard a worker as they come and has a nose for the football.

From Alabama's perspective, though, the move is troubling.

The most immediate question -- "Are you running from Tuscaloosa or toward the NFL?" -- isn't readily answered. With so much up in the air this offseason, from coaching staff changes to other underclassmen turning pro, could it have influenced his decision?

Sunseri was the heartbeat of the secondary, its most vocal leader and its best playmaker. He would have been one of the centerpieces of the defense next season. He and Landon Collins playing side by side at safety would have been a good starting point for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to build around. Mixing in veterans Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry would have been plenty to work with, helping relieve some of the pressure off of Alabama's young set of cornerbacks.

Now Alabama is left with more questions than answers. Losing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety was hard enough. Sunseri vacating his spot at strong safety only makes matters worse. Collins showed he's an immensely talented player this season, finishing second in tackles and first in passes defended, but he's still raw. We saw that in a few key missteps against Auburn to end the regular season and then again against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Granted, Collins will improve, but Alabama will need another player or two to step up and fill Sunseri's shoes.

The silver lining for Saban is he's not without talented players to call upon. Former four-star corner Geno Smith made the transition to safety this past season and former professional baseball player Jai Miller should be better prepared after a season of re-acclimating to the game. Welcoming in two early enrollee defensive backs -- five-star cornerback Tony Brown and No. 2-rated safety Laurence "Hootie" Jones -- will help in terms of depth, too.

But make no mistake, Alabama is in transition. As curious a move as it was for Sunseri to turn pro early, it leads to just as puzzling questions for the Tide moving forward. There are the right coaches in place to make it work -- men like Saban, Smart and others -- but it doesn't make the events any less surprising.

Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?

Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.

Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.

The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.

This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.

The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.

The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron lost in his last two starts for Alabama and didn't look like himself in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?

What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.

But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.

Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.

It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.

The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.

Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.

In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.

Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.

And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.

But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.

From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.

Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.

At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.

What we learned: Week 9

October, 27, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here's a look at three lessons learned in No. 1 Alabama's 45-10 win over Tennessee on Saturday night.

Collins can play: Alabama might miss Vinnie Sunseri, but it might not be in terms of his leadership. It was clear from early on Saturday as he shouted at teammates and limped on and off the field that despite a season-ending knee injury, Sunseri is determined to spearhead the secondary as its vocal leader on the sidelines. During the game, Landon Collins picked up the slack. The talented true sophomore was a playmaker, returning an interception 89 yards for a touchdown just before halftime. Tennessee never got anything going through the air as Justin Worley and Josh Dobbs combined for 195 yards passing and two interceptions.

Drake is still learning: He's blazingly fast. His acceleration is staggering. His big play ability is really something. But for everything Kenyan Drake does well at running back, he's still learning. Too often he gets out of control and out of position. Against Tennessee he did it again, breaking a great run before fumbling the ball on the 1-yard line. Cleaning up the finer points of his game like ball security will take his game from promising to productive.

Alabama fans listen: Nick Saban made it clear he didn't want to see an empty seat in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon. He said if you don't want to stay, give away your tickets. And for the most part, Alabama's fans listened. Despite the Tide jumping out to a 35-0 halftime lead, the vast majority of fans stuck around to watch the final minutes of the second half in Tuscaloosa.

Five things: Alabama-Tennessee

October, 26, 2013
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as top-ranked Alabama (7-0, 4-0) hosts upstart Tennessee (4-3, 1-2) on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa:

Start of life without Sunseri: Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama's junior starting safety, has a brace on his knee after undergoing season-ending surgery earlier in the week. Saturday might be even more difficult as he'll have to watch from afar as Landon Collins starts in his place. Collins is talented, but young. The good news is he's played well of late, filling in for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety, and now he'll be back in his natural position at strong safety. Look for Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith to play there as well.

Penalty-free play: First, do yourself a favor and check out Holly Rowe's video feature on long-time Alabama referee Ed Conyers. Then take a minute to reflect on the Crimson Tide's historic performance last weekend when it failed to commit a single penalty against Arkansas. Alabama hadn't gone penalty free since Sept. 1982.

Offensive line humming: Will Ryan Kelly play or not? The sophomore hasn't started at center since injuring himself against Ole Miss, and Chad Linsday has played well in his place. Alabama coach Nick Saban said Kelly has been "full go" this week, so he's likely to see the field in some form or fashion. If he does, he'll have to help continue another impressive streak Alabama has going: The Tide hasn't surrendered a sack since the third quarter against Ole Miss on Sept. 28.

Is it now or never for Cooper?: It's tough to make that statement for a player like Amari Cooper, who has battled some nagging injuries. But sooner or later you have to wonder if he'll ever get back to the form that made him a consensus Freshman All-America a year ago. Cooper's played better of late, catching three passes in each of the last two games. He blew up against Tennessee last season with 162 yards and two touchdowns. Maybe a familiar foe will help jump start his sophomore campaign.

Cornerback carousel: First it was John Fulton. Then it was Cyrus Jones. Then it was Eddie Jackson. Then it was Bradley Sylve. And then it came back to Fulton. But his stint opposite Deion Belue at cornerback appears to be short-lived, as Saban said on his weekly radio show that Jones will likely start in place of Sylve, who is out with a high ankle sprain. Saban said Jones, who switched from receiver to defensive back this spring, is "probably played the best of all those guys right now." As far as Jackson and fellow freshman Maurice Smith, "It's still a little bit of a work in progress," Saban said.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
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Here are 10 things to watch in the SEC this week:

1. Thursday night football: It gets started tonight with Mississippi State hosting Kentucky. Both teams are searching for their first SEC win of the season. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has seen his team take some lumps and has shuffled its quarterbacks. Maxwell Smith will get the start because Jalen Whitlow was injured against Alabama. Mississippi State had to turn to Dak Prescott after Tyler Russell was knocked out of the season opener against Oklahoma State with a concussion, and though Russell has since returned, Prescott is still getting playing time.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTexas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is hoping Johnny Manziel will be able to play against Vanderbilt.
2. Manziel: To play or not to play? If it seems that we've been down this road before, it's because we have. People want to know whether Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel will play Saturday. He suffered an apparent shoulder injury in a 45-41 loss to Auburn but returned to finish the final 9:06 of the game, playing with pain in that throwing shoulder. Coach Kevin Sumlin isn't tipping his hand, simply calling Manziel "hopeful" for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.

3. Can Mauk and Mizzou keep it going? Missouri freshman quarterback Maty Mauk made his first start last week in place of the injured James Franklin and was solid, completing 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards plus a touchdown and interception in a win over Florida. The Tigers (7-0, 3-0) hold at least a two-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the SEC East and host No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. It's another test for the Tigers, who passed their last two -- at Georgia and versus Florida -- with flying colors.

4. Dylan Thompson gets the call for the Gamecocks: South Carolina starting quarterback Connor Shaw sprained his left knee, and coach Steve Spurrier said Thompson will get the start Saturday against Missouri. Spurrier said Shaw could potentially be the backup and could take some snaps if the Gamecocks needed it, but Thompson will be the guy at game time. He has appeared in all but one game this season, completing 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

5. Shifting safeties for Bama: Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is out for the rest of the season with a knee injury and will be replaced by sophomore Landon Collins. He already has two starts under his belt this season (when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was out), but now Collins will be lining up next to Clinton-Dix, who's returning from a suspension. Collins is eager for his chance, though losing the leadership that Sunseri provided isn't ideal.

6. Another Vols upset?: It'll be tough since Tennessee heads to Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on No. 1 Alabama, but the Vols have raised eyebrows in recent weeks. They were within a blink of upsetting Georgia on Oct. 5, taking the Bulldogs to overtime before losing 34-31, and last week they came away with a 23-21 upset of South Carolina. The past two games have been in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, and the Vols must now go on the road against a juggernaut. Tennessee already has taken some lumps from Oregon and Florida on the road this season, but there's definitely a renewed optimism and energy permeating the program under Butch Jones right now.

7. Who's at QB for Vanderbilt? Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left last week's game in the second quarter with a left-leg injury and coach James Franklin's depth chart reads: Carta-Samuels or Patton Robinette. Robinette was 9-of-15 passing for 107 yards, a rushing touchdown and an interception in place of Carta-Samuels. Franklin hasn't publicly named a starter, as is the case with the Commodores' opponent -- Texas A&M -- so there's some uncertainty about who will take the first snap for each team when they meet at Kyle Field.

8. Nonconference tilts for three: LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss are all heavy favorites as each dips back into nonconference play this weekend. LSU is hosting Furman, Auburn takes on Florida Atlantic, and Ole Miss meets Idaho. LSU is looking to bounce back from last week's narrow loss at Ole Miss, Auburn hopes to continue the positive momentum from this season that hit a peak with a win at Texas A&M last week, and the Rebels (who upset LSU) are looking for their second straight win in the middle of a six-game homestand.

9. Recovery time for Arkansas, Florida, Georgia: Each of these teams has had its fair share of struggles and injuries, and they're getting a chance to shore those up as all three have a bye. Arkansas is searching for answers after getting beaten the past two weeks by a combined score of 104-7. Florida needs to kick-start a sputtering offense that has left the previously ranked team with two straight losses. Georgia, coming off two losses itself, is hoping to get Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett back next week.

10. Keeping the top spot: Alabama started No. 1, and the Crimson Tide occupy the top spot in the debut of this season's BCS standings. Nick Saban & Co. have been downright dominant, with their only close call coming in College Station in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Since then, the Tide have allowed just 16 points in five games. They host Tennessee -- a team that's building some momentum itself -- on Saturday and then have a week off before their showdown with LSU on Nov. 9. For now, the Tide continue to carry the torch for the SEC.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He was the rare five-star prospect who had to wait. When Landon Collins, the former top-rated safety in the country, got to the University of Alabama more than a year ago, he was told to be patient. There were others in front of him who had been there longer and earned their spots. Collins would play sparingly and learn the ropes as a freshman, but he wouldn't be an immediate star.

Collins didn't buck. He made a name for himself on special teams and stayed quiet off the field. He knew what he was getting into when he signed with Alabama. Here in Nick Saban's backyard, blue-chip recruits are sown like ears of corn, plucked from the stalk only when the time is right.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
AP Photo/Butch DillAs a senior in the Class of 2012, Landon Collins was ranked by ESPN as the No. 6 player in the nation and the No. 1 safety prospect.
He's still a tad green, but Collins' time is now. Thanks to a two-game suspension to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and a season-ending injury to Vinnie Sunseri, Collins has gone from reserve to starter in the blink of an eye. Suddenly we're seeing the talent of a young prospect turn into the promise of a full-time starter.

On Monday, Saban exited one door and Collins entered another. Roughly 15 minutes after Saban announced that Sunseri would miss the rest of the year, Collins walked into the media room of the Mal Moore Athletic Facility and was surrounded by reporters. "With Sunseri gone, what does it mean for the defensive backs?" he was asked.

"We have to step it up," Collins said matter-of-factly. "He was a big loss for our defense. Now and the student leadership needs to step up and the players need to step up that are taking his place."

Meaning he, a true sophomore with only two career starts under his belt, is part of leading one of the best defenses in college football. Alabama enters this week with the fewest touchdowns allowed in the country (eight) and ranks in the top 10 nationally in pass defense, rush defense, yards per game and first downs.

No pressure.

But Collins, who has felt the weight of national attention before as a recruit, sees Sunseri's loss as the fulfillment of an opportunity he'd been waiting for since he arrived in Tuscaloosa as a freshman.

"What it means to me is I'm excited," he said. "It's been humbling and I've been staying at it trying to work as hard as I can to get to where I am now. I'm thankful for it, I just take every advantage I can get."

That doesn't mean it will be easy. There's no replacing Sunseri's leadership and big-play ability. He was the voice of the secondary, making all the calls on the back end of the defense. When Alabama needed a play to be made, Sunseri was often the one to do it. He was a rock, an anchor to young defensive backs like Collins.

As Collins said, "We lost a leader." When Alabama takes the field Saturday against Tennessee, it will be without a player Saban called "an outstanding player and a really good person, good leader."

"We lost a very valuable player on our team," Collins said. "He was our play-caller and our playmaker, too. He made a lot of big plays for us. A standout player. We looked up to him. If we didn't know the call I could look to my left and say, 'Vinnie, what do we do?' "

Collins will have Clinton-Dix to lean on, but more of the responsibility is on his shoulders now. Teammates have raved about his abilities. Sunseri called him a "bullet" who "goes hard every single play." Clinton-Dix said in August that Collins was "at the top of the peak" and lauded his physical style. The praise has been universal. He's long looked the part of a five-star athlete.

But Collins knows he'll have to be more than be quick and strong and fast. He'll have to be a complete player -- he'll have to be like Sunseri -- if Alabama is going to reach the national championship for a third straight year.

"I'll bring the same type of passion Vinnie brought to the game," Collins said. "Vinnie played hard and gave 150 percent every game, every play, every down. I'm going to bring the same thing. Looking up to him, he played with passion and determination and a will not to give up. That's what I'm going to do for the team."
You don’t measure the impact of players like Vinnie Sunseri in 40-yard dash times and sheer statistics.

Sunseri’s value to the Alabama defense went much deeper than that.

In fact, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart would tell you that having Sunseri in that secondary was the closest thing to Smart being out there on the field with them.

The No. 1 Crimson Tide will have to play the rest of the season without Sunseri, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week in the 52-0 win over Arkansas.

Sunseri’s dependability and his instincts, not to mention his leadership, will be what Alabama misses most.

Go back and watch how many times he would get guys lined up, how many times he just happened to be in the right place at the right time and how many times he was there to make a key play.

It’s true that Sunseri wasn’t the best in man coverage, but he also had a way of cleaning up others’ mistakes, and even more importantly, making sure those mistakes didn’t occur in the first place.

The safety position at Alabama has been hit hard this season. Nick Perry was also lost last month with a shoulder injury.

But the Crimson Tide have recruited like gangbusters in the secondary, and there’s no shortage of talent waiting in the wings. Sophomore Landon Collins is one of the more physically impressive athletes on the team. Alabama fans have been waiting for him to break out. Well, this would be a good time after he's shown it in flashes.

Collins, the top safety prospect in America when Alabama signed him two years ago, filled in for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at free safety while Clinton-Dix was suspended. But with Clinton-Dix back, Collins will likely slide over to strong safety to fill Sunseri’s spot.

Sophomore Geno Smith has also been working at safety, while junior safety Jarrick Williams has been outstanding this season as that fifth defensive back or what Alabama calls its “star” position.

So the good news is that Alabama has depth in its defensive backfield and some talented young players who are getting better each week. But it’s always unnerving for any coach to lose somebody with Sunseri’s experience and his ability to hold things together in the back end of that defense.

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